Friday, August 25, 2006

Lisa's Take: The Khaavrian Romances

What makes a book jump out above all others? What makes you long for characters months after you’ve finished a series? Is it even fair to write a review of a book that you love such a ridiculous amount?

I’ll admit, I’m a big Brust-fan. I’ve enjoyed just about everything I’ve read by him (which is rather a lot of books… somewhere in the 16 or 18 range that I’ve finished, I think?) and I especially enjoy his Vlad Taltos Series. That’s an entirely different review though, and one that I’ll share the honors with JD on. But regardless of my predisposition, the five books of the Khaavrian Romances (The Phoenix Guards, Five Hundred Years After, and The Viscount of Adrilankha (Paths of the Dead, Lord of Castle Black and Sethra Lavode)) are simply amongst the most wonderful works of fiction I’ve ever consumed.

The story, you ask? The story follows four friends – Khaavren, Pel, Tazendra and Aerich – as they meet, join The Phoenix Guards, solve a mystery, protect the emperor, see the downfall of a city and help bring the empire back to life. All in a day’s work and all of that. Screw the story though; it’s fantastic and interesting, but that’s not what makes the books so wonderful. Characters and Prose, my friends, Characters and Prose are what does it.

You just don’t know what amazing prose is until you’ve read these books. The style of speech (which takes a bit to get the flow of – bear with it) sweeps you up and engages you completely – and will have you speaking the same way for months afterwards. Brust embraces and enhances a Dumas-ian prose-style and gives it a knife’s edge twist to make it infectious and amazing. Wit has never been so well done. Merely speaking of it cannot possibly do it justice, but once you’ve read it you will understand.

Characters, you wonder? The Horse! I’ve been wishing to speak of nothing else for an hour! (Sorry, I went back to prose there for a moment, forgive me please.) I’ll admit, books have made me cry before. Not often, but every once in a while (*cough*Martin*cough*) one will get me. The Khaavrian Romances made me sob, I cared about the characters so much. Brust just creates the most amazing, believable, solid…. possessing characters. Every word and action is perfect for that character, every look and movement and shrug. They keep you spellbound, and when the books ended I longed to be close to them again. I literally miss the characters with a pain in my chest sometimes.

So there you have it – now you know exactly what makes the best books in the world the best *wink* Certainly they won’t be everyone’s favorite, but they should definitely be a staple of the Fantasy Connoisseur’s diet. Brust just made the New York Time’s Bestseller list for the first time, so he might be getting wider recognition in the years to come, but in the mean time I’ll do my best to initiate everyone I possibly can to his amazingness.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Lisa’s Take: Eastern Standard Tribe (Cory Doctrow)

That was fun!

Um… what else is there to say? I feel like if I give a plot summary of this little gem I’ll practically be transcribing the whole (very short) book. You know you’ve been reading too much fantasy when a 200 page book is “ridiculously short.” I seriously sat down and consumed this one in a couple of hours – and enjoyed it thoroughly, at that.

Eastern Standard Tribe is set in the not-so-far-off-future when everyone has omnipresent handhelds and online communities have split themselves both by interest and time zone – leading tribe members around the world to have rather broken sleep schedules. Erm. Hijinks ensue! You know, Business, Technology, Sex, User Interface Design, Betrayal… the usual.

This little morsel has a very entertaining and what seems to me to be a very plausible view of the next 10 years. Also witty dialog, a fun story, and the (best + shortest) chapter ever to exist in a book. Pick it up, suck it down in an evening, and be entertained.

End of Line.

Friday, August 11, 2006

JD's Take: Pandora's Star (Peter F. Hamilton)

It's fairly unusual that I get really into a peice of pure science fiction. Historically, Peter F. Hamilton has been one of the few sci-fi authors that can really suck me in. Pandora's Star was absolutely no exception.

Back of the book summery: Humanity discovers a potentially hostile alien race. Coping ensues. With wormholes.

So what makes this book different from the hundreds of other sci-fi books that fill the shelves of your local Barnes & Noble? First of all, Hamilton is a fantastic world builder. The world of Pandora's Star (which is very different from his earlier work. It is a much nearer future with very different technology) will entrance you. The technology progression is believable, and forms the framework for a fascinating political situation rife with powerful families vying for power, terrorist groups fighting for the good of humanity, and governments in the pockets of shadowy powers (or are they?).

But again, good world building is hardly unique in the world of sci-fi. What really sets Hamilton apart from the pack is his deftness in creating interesting, believable characters. I can't think of any characters in Pandora's Star, no matter how minor a role they play, that didn't make me want to read more about them. The characters feel how real people feel, are rational like real people, and interact like real people. The political drama doesn't focus on personality conflict, the players are too professional for that. Instead Hamilton manages to make the balancing of agendas, the give and take of people trying to turn a bad situation to their advantage while simultaneously genuinely striving to fix the problem into a page-turning read. He even manages to get inside the minds of a completely alien race, a strange and baffling way of thinking and making it seem... justifiable. Not right, not good, but you understand where it's coming from. Though their methods seem baffling at first, Hamilton doesn't neglect to ensure that even the Big Bad has real motivation.

The last thing that sets the book apart is the lack of Star Trek plot devices. The warp cores don't explode, and if they did, I imagine the engineers who built the boat had redundant systems and spare parts. When the final solution comes around, I can pretty much guarentee that the answer will have nothing to do with the technology or the time that the story is told with.

Pandora's Star is the first in a series. Knowing Hamilton, there will be plenty of pages between here and the end, and that's okay with me. I'm writing this a couple months after I finished the book and while I sit here I find myself wondering what faction X is getting up to, or how Hamilton will decide to use Entity Y. For a guy who can hardly rarely remember the main character's name a week after putting novel down, that isn't unimpressive. Not unlike reading the first Song of Ice & Fire book, I find myself wishing more of my friends had read the book, because I am interested to hear what theories they came up with. So what are you waiting for?

[details: Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton, pb]

Lisa's Take: Perdido Street Station (China Mieville)

While we're on the topic of Portly Protagonists, let's talk a little about Isaac. Isaac is a tubby, middle aged, generally brilliant Jack-Of-All-Trades (not to be confused with Jack Half a Prayer) scientist. Did you follow all that? If not, don’t worry – the prose in China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station will more than make up for it. Seriously, go read it right this minute. Shake your head at the early bewilderment – because you will be bewildered, beguiled and bewitched, but it’s worth it.

My apologies; my enthusiasm over this book as quickly derailed me – let me start again. Isaac is a scientist in the fantastical city of New Crobuzon. Estranged from his University companions he dabbles in any interesting subject that comes his way: Vodyanoi watercraft, Garuda flight mechanics, and his own area of focus: Crisis energy. Perdido Street Station follows Isaac and his companions as an experiment grown out of proportion threatens to destroy the populace of New Crobuzon.

How does one characterize a novel as diverse as this? Mieville’s work spans more genres than any description can adequately do justice, but I suppose you can come close by calling it Sci-Fan-Hor. Oh, or maybe Fan-Sci-Horror, so it sort of sounds like Fancy Horror. Yeah, I like that. Mix in a little mystery and some serious suspense, and you have one of the most well crafted novels I’ve ever read. Mieville doesn’t explain things to you – he doesn’t need to. His way with words is such that the sentences spill straight from the page into your imagination and create the most vivid races, places and faces that you’ve never seen before. It will take a little practice – even I will admit that the first 30 or so pages left my head reeling – but once you let yourself sink into it, you’ll never look back.

When’s the best time to read this book, you ask? Well, not when you’re home alone in the dark, I’d say. I would suggest using it to take a break from your regularly scheduled diet of epic fantasy. It’s really damn refreshing to read something that is not only new, but also a single, happy, 500 page story with no loose ends. It doesn’t go on and on and on like some authors we know – you read it, it’s amazing, and you’re done with it; one nice, happy (or not), complete story.

Could there possibly be anything bad about Perdido Street Station? It’s hard for me to say anything bad about Mieville in general, but I’ll knit pick a bit so I sound like I’m not too star-struck. Other than the bit of time it takes to get acclimated to the prose, I wish I had felt a slightly stronger connection to Isaac as a main character. Don’t get me wrong – I ached for him at the right times, was excited at the right times… I just felt like I could have hurt a little more, maybe even cried just a bit. Just a teensy tiny bit more emotion would have done it.

There, see how fair and balanced I am?

Now go consume it. This minute.

Monday, August 07, 2006

JD's Take: Prince of Nothing series (R. Scott Bakker)

R. Scott Bakker wrote an entire epic fantasy trilogy in three years. If for no better reason, the man is a saint. This simple fact alone guarentees that the next time I see his name on a spine I'll be picking the book up, rather than waiting for it to re-catch my eye in paperback 7 years down the line when I see that book three has finally been released. Obviously then, I enjoyed it. To be sure, there were flaws to the series. The first and by far the most important problem with the books is that the sheer impenetrable volume of names, places, and characters introduced is overwhelming. Now you've read epic fantasy. You see that sentence and scoff. Scoff! But believe me when I say that this is a word-gap beyond any you can imagine. If you can suffer through the first 100-200 pages, completely bewildered (and I know at least one brave man who couldn't), you will come out the other side in a zen state. A trance in which names simply pass over you and through you, and where the names have gone, only plot will remain.

Once you reach this state, you are in for a very rewarding read. The story follows the unlikely character of Drusas Achamian, or Akka to his friends. He's an overweight spy, a powerful sorcerer, and a guilt-ridden mess. He's believable, flawed, and his goals are generally small and human and understandable. Early in the first book he gets mixed up with a holy war that serves as the backdrop and vehicle for the rest of the series. Like any epic fantasy, there are plenty of other characters that are interesting, important, and (mostly) believable. Because of the nature of the story, motivation becomes an essential plot point, and so Bakker does a great job creating believable characters with honest motivations and engaging personalities. I approve.

As the second and third books progress, the story gets bigger, the battles keep coming, the trials get harder. If you read epic fantasy for fantastic fight scenes you won't be disapointed, there are some truly fantastic battles in here. However, as Lisa pointed out to me, Bakker doesn't do a great job of making each faction, each leader, stand out. Though they all have unique customs and attitudes, it never really gelled in my mind which one was which. When leaders fall in battle, I have a hard time remembering which one he was, and which faction he supported. If this was the story of the holy war, and the people who fought it, this would be a serious flaw. But it isn't. This is the story of a handful of men and women who are stuggling to make sense of their lives, resolve their emotional baggage, and survive the trials they face. The war, in all its furious glory, is nothing more than the setting for that struggle.

My final comment is that the ending was... unsatisfying. Much was left unanswered, or allowed to resolve off-screen. I think that this was intentional. The feelings evoked by ending where he did, by leaving things unsaid and non-final were consistant with the mood of the final chapter. When I put down the last book, I was left feeling much as Drusas must have. I recognize the motivation behind this, but there is also something to be said for wrapping up all the loose ends and letting the reader put the book behind him.

On the whole, I wouldn't say this is a "must-read", and it is certainly a challenging read (at least to get started), but on the whole I think you will find a rewarding, well-paced, well-conceived work of fiction that doesn't feel nearly so epic as it looks.

[details: This review is written on The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior Prophet, and The Thousandfold Thought, by R. Scott Bakker, all in HB]

Post the first.

Welcome to Seven Foot Shelves. This is a literary blog created by a couple of geeks who can't keep track of what they have read, whether it was any good, and who they have lent the book to anyway. Reviews will generally be short, recommendation-type write ups with as few spoilers as we can manage. Probably only as bad as reading the back. Which is a topic for a future post rant.